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U.S. Must Return to the Table

Only the West can bring peace to the Mideast.

November 16, 2003|Avraham Burg

The bodies keep piling up in the Middle East. The cries of the victims, the keening of the mourners and the wail of the sirens have turned the Middle Eastern symphony into a terrible, hopeless saber dance. Once again despair has conquered hope. Once again the petty details have banished the great dream.

And there in the background, fading off into the horizon, is the president of the United States, carrying in his backpack the road map that was supposed to bring us out of our hell into the light of peace.

I don't blame him. I'm merely begging him to come back. And I feel obligated to explain some basic facts. So that when the United States does come back, things can be different.

It is a common but terrible mistake to reduce the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, between them and us, to a game of chicken between two bored drivers somewhere in the Middle Eastern desert. This is a war between two refugee nations that dreamed of a great land that each might have to itself, only to wake up and discover that somebody else was there, the dream was compromised and the day-to-day reality was turning into a nightmare.

Now, each of these nations has come to represent an entire civilization standing behind it. One half of the globe, the Arab-Muslim civilization, seems pitted against the other Judeo-Christian half. But that is not the way it looks from here.

From here, it looks like this: For years now, they have been killing us without pity, and we have been humiliating them without regard.

When they kill us, they are continuing the experience of the Holocaust in our eyes. We cannot free ourselves from this. In the deepest consciousness of many Israelis, Yasser Arafat is an unshaven Hitler, the suicide bombers are Nazis and their supporters are savages.

And when we respond by killing them we are reviving the humiliation of colonialism, the wrong inflicted by the First World, the Christian West in its arrogant encounter with the Third World. White skin versus dark, rich versus poor, technology versus primalism.

And in this dialogue of blood, this dance of sabers that pairs the fact of the Holocaust and the fact of colonialism, it is difficult to create stable understandings, to build a bridge of compassion and forgiveness. It is nearly impossible to speak of a win-win reality after so many years of losses.

We try, and we fail. We do it in Hebrew and in Arabic and find we can't do it alone, because these two ancient languages are not enough. Therefore we need you to mediate in the language of the Western world, the world that has learned to solve its disputes without war (even if it does not always heed the lesson), the world that may have a key to peace.

You must allow democracy to rise from the bottom up among the Palestinians, who have absorbed its values and methods from us during 35 years of occupation. (It can happen long before American democracy can be forced from the top down in Iraq, which is unprepared for it after generations of dictatorship and tyranny.)

You must still the winds of bullying unilateralism that are blowing through the corridors of Washington, urging a bottom line without a process, "solutions" in simple primary colors that lack the nuance and subtlety of Middle Eastern complexity.

You must still the drums of a religious crusade. A war against terrorism, yes. A struggle for the ideal of democracy and the values of tolerance, certainly. But a religious war, a new crusade? No thanks, we have entirely too much God already in the Middle East.

When President Bush comes back, he must come alone, without the baggage of fundamentalist clerics and would-be world redeemers, Christian evangelists pushing the rest of us toward Armageddon. It wasn't for this that my people returned to the stage of history.

And you must take your own advice. For years you have been preaching to us. "Swallow your pride," you said, "and compromise with the Palestinians." And for years you have been pressuring the Palestinians to swallow their own pride and compromise with the Israelis. The time has come, United States, for you too to swallow your pride. Speak with Europe. Involve the main Arab states. Without a coordinated international diplomatic effort, peace hasn't got a chance.

Develop a policy for the entire region, from Iraq to North Africa, a bold plan that will open up the Middle East to all peoples and nations. Present us with a plausible future: a full and comprehensive peace. A framework in which the Arab states obligate themselves to Israel's existence and security and take responsibility for the stability and demilitarization of a Palestinian state. And in return, Israelis and Palestinians sign a permanent, final peace agreement.

In other words, encircle the evil with goodness -- until it is transformed. Defeat the suicidal pessimism around us with democratic, peace-loving optimism.

And most important, don't run off to Texas the moment things get tough.

Right now we need you more than ever.

Avraham Burg is a Labor Party member of Israel's Knesset and served as speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003. This essay was translated by J.J. Goldberg.

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